12 tips to curb data usage in Android

If your Android device is guzzling data, it can cost you or your employer a bundle. Here are 12 ways to prevent that.

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Credit: Fizkes / iStock

At a time when a great deal of business is conducted on the go using smartphones, it's become even more important to be conscious of how much data you're using. Whether you're using your own phone or one issued by your company, mobile data is money -- and if you don't optimize your phone to handle it intelligently, you're throwing dollars down the drain.

After all, whether you have a plan with a monthly data cap or a setup where you're billed for the data you use, you're essentially paying for all the virtual info you transmit over your carrier's network. In the former case, reducing your data usage could let you move to a cheaper level of service. In the latter, every megabyte you save will directly lower your monthly bill.

The good news is that you can cut back on your phone's mobile data usage dramatically -- without much meaningful impact on your day-to-day experience.

Here are 12 steps you can follow to track your data and lessen its effect on your -- or your company's -- budget. (Note: Any tips that are specific to a particular version of Android will be noted.)

1. Diagnose your data usage

You have to understand a problem before you can fix it -- so start by heading into your system settings and looking for the section labeled "Data usage." Tap that line, then tap "Cellular data usage" on the next screen.

01 android data usage JR Raphael / IDG

You have to understand a problem before you can fix it.

That'll pull up a detailed overview of exactly what apps burned through your mobile data over the most recent 30-day cycle (and if you want even more context, you can look back in previous cycles by tapping the dates at the top of the screen and selecting an earlier range). Many of the top offenders will likely be social media programs, web browsers, and apps that involve streaming audio or video. Make a mental note of any such items; we'll get into the specifics of dealing with them in a moment.

If you see anything else that's responsible for more than a few megabytes of mobile data, tap on it to take a closer look. That'll give you a breakdown of how much of the app's data usage was in the foreground -- in other words, the result of something you actively did with your display on -- and how much of it was in the background, or taking place without your active involvement.

Keep all of that in mind as we move through the following steps.

2. Battle unnecessary background trickles

Now that we know what's eating through your mobile data, it's time to start addressing it.

We'll start by seeking out and limiting specific instances of unnecessary background data use. Social and news apps tend to be among the worst at this, as they often check in at regular intervals throughout the day in order to pull in new updates. You can opt to disable that behavior -- and in most cases, you probably won't notice much of a downside from doing so.

One by one, open up any social or news apps on your phone and look for data-saving opportunities in their settings. In the Twitter Android app, for instance, you'll find a section called "Data usage." Tap it and then uncheck the box next to "Sync data" to make the app update only when you're actively using it. (That won't affect your ability to get notifications, incidentally; those are controlled separately in the "Notifications" section of the settings.)

In a news app like Flipboard, meanwhile, there's an option called "Reduce Data Usage" that's set to "Full use" by default. Change it to either "On demand" or "Don't use mobile data" -- because really, why have the app pull in new stories when you aren't even looking?

Finally, if you have an app that showed up as a high consumer of background data in our first step but that doesn't have any obvious way to control its data use within its settings -- like Facebook, for instance, which is a notorious data guzzler but no longer allows you to disable background activity -- take control at the system level: Head into the "Apps" section of your system settings and tap the relevant app's line. Tap "Data usage," then deactivate the toggle next to "Background data." That'll prevent the app from using data in the background unless you're connected to Wi-Fi.

(Be sure to use common sense with this. If you disable background data for something like a messaging app, the app isn't going to be able to receive messages in the background when you're out and about during the day. That probably isn't something you want. Even with an app like Facebook, disabling background data means you won't be able to receive new activity notifications unless the app is actively open. Make sure you're OK with any such tradeoffs.)

3. Stop the autoplay insanity

Videos are among the most voracious consumers of data -- and lots of apps have the bad habit of playing them when you aren't even paying attention.

Social media apps, for example, love to autoplay videos as you scroll through a feed or timeline. But you can change that.

03 facebook twitter autoplay settings JR Raphael / IDG

In the Facebook (left) and Twitter (right) Android apps, you'll find options for restricting when media is allowed to autoplay.

In the Facebook Android app, if you open the main menu and look all the way down for the line labeled "App Settings," you'll find an option for restricting when media is allowed to autoplay. In Twitter, you'll find a similar option in the "Data Usage" section of the app's settings -- and you'll also find data-saving options for disabling image previews in your timeline and avoiding high-quality video altogether whenever you're on a mobile network.

Instagram, Snapchat and other social apps have settings to achieve the same purposes. Seek them all out, and stop letting your data get tossed into the trash.

4. Compress your mobile web experience

Next up is an easy fix: Making your browser less of a data hog. Google's Chrome Android browser has an option called Data Saver that routes pages through Google's servers so they're compressed when they reach you. It can save a significant amount of data and actually make your browsing faster, too.

04 chrome android data saver JR Raphael / IDG

Google's Chrome Android browser has an option called Data Saver that |routes pages through Google's servers so they're compressed when they reach you.

To try it out, go into Chrome's settings and look for the line labeled "Data Saver." Tap it, then make sure the toggle there is activated.

If you want even more data-saving tools, try Opera or Opera Mini. Both browsers offer their own forms of remote page compression along with options for compressing videos on the web and restricting files to download only when you're connected to Wi-Fi.

5. Optimize your music apps

Got Google Play Music? Head into the app's settings and look for the "Quality on mobile network" option. Try setting it to "Low" or "Normal" and then see if the more data-friendly audio quality is good enough for your ears.

While you're in the settings, take a moment to confirm that the option for "Download only on Wi-Fi" is activated -- and think carefully about the option to "Cache music while streaming." That'll cause the app to download every song while you stream it, which means the song will then be locally stored and won't require any additional data if you listen to it again in the future.

If you tend to listen to the same songs over and over, activating that option is advisable. If you don't repeat-listen too often, you'd probably be better off leaving it deactivated so you don't needlessly use the data required for downloading (especially if you're using one of the lower-quality mobile streaming settings).

Play Music isn't the only audio app with these sorts of options, of course. Spotify, Pandora and most other music and podcast services have similar controls. Be sure to look through the settings of any such apps on your phone to make sure they're configured in the most data-efficient manner possible.

6. Put YouTube on a mobile data diet

While we're on the subject of streaming, open up the YouTube app and look in the "General" section of its settings. There, you'll find an option to "Limit mobile data usage." Activate it, and the app will use a lower-quality and thus less data-intensive stream whenever you're on a mobile network.

On the same screen, find the option labeled "Autoplay" and make sure it's disabled.

7. Download media in advance

The best way to cut back on mobile data streaming is to avoid it -- and many multimedia apps make that easy to do. The trick is simply to download the content you want in advance, while you're connected to Wi-Fi, so it'll be locally stored and available whenever you're relying on mobile data.

And don't forget that if you subscribe to Google Play Music, you also have the ability to download videos from YouTube for on-the-go viewing. Look in the "Background & offline" section of the YouTube app's settings to get started. (Assuming you have an active Play Music subscription, that is -- if you don't, the section won't show up for you.)

8. Take your navigation offline

You know what else can download data in advance and help you avoid expensive streaming? Google Maps. The next time you know you're going to need navigation, open the Maps app in advance while you're still somewhere with Wi-Fi. Punch in the route you'll need, then look for the box with the option to download offline directions.

08 google maps offline JR Raphael / IDG

The next time you know you're going to need navigation, open the Maps app in advance while you're still somewhere with Wi-Fi, punch in the route you'll need, then look for the gray box with the option to download offline directions.

You can see and manage your downloaded maps in the "Offline areas" section of Maps' settings.

9. Put the Play Store on notice

App updates are great! They're also, however, often large -- and if you aren't careful, they can use an awful lot of your mobile data allotment.

Make sure that isn't happening by opening up the Play Store on your phone, finding its settings and ensuring the "Auto-update apps" option is set to "Wi-Fi only."

10. Plug up senseless leaks

Now's a good time to think about any apps on your phone that you no longer use and to uninstall them (or disable them, if they came preinstalled and can't be removed) -- especially if they showed up in your list of top mobile data drainers.

Keeping any such items on your phone is like keeping an out-of-use cable box plugged into an electrical outlet. Every little bit adds up -- so why allow a leak on your resources for no real reason?

11. Perform an account syncing audit

While you've got your plumber pants on, head into the "Accounts" section of your system settings. Tap "Google," then tap the line for your main Google account.

See all that stuff your phone is syncing? Odds are, at least some of it is related to services you never use. If, say, you never use Google Drive or Google Play Movies or Google+, deactivate the toggle next to the corresponding line. That's one less thing your phone will check in on throughout the day.

Got multiple Google accounts connected to your phone? Repeat this step for each of 'em.

12. Go nuclear on unnecessary data use

If you've tried all the above options and still feel like you could stand to use less data, there's one more step to try -- and it's a drastic one.

Android (version 7.0 and up) has a system-level tool called Data Saver that prevents most apps from using mobile data unless they're open on your screen and actively being used. That means apps won't be able to do anything in the background, including fetching and notifying you about new messages, unless you're on Wi-Fi (or unless you manually whitelist them as an exception).

It's an extreme measure, to be sure -- but if you're desperate to curb your mobile data use, even temporarily, it's one final step worth considering. You can find the option within the "Data usage" section of your system settings.

This story, "12 tips to curb data usage in Android" was originally published by Computerworld.

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